Last updated: Panic at the SEO: Google algorithm update wreaks havoc for brands

Panic at the SEO: Google algorithm update wreaks havoc for brands

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The SEO ranking hits keep on coming with every batch of fresh and disruptive Google algorithm updates.

Every year, Google rolls out approximately 500 to 600 algorithm updates in its never-ending quest to remain competitive and spam-free while integrating newer functionality, like generative AI. The trouble is these improvements come in waves. And that can create volatility, causing fluctuations in the search results that brands rely upon to generate engagement.

These aren’t small fluctuations, mind you. They’re wild swings.

Case in point: Semrush, an online visibility management company that tracks such things, says the September Google Helpful Content Updates (HCUs) profoundly impacted web site rankings, significantly favoring “high-quality, valuable content.”

This means sites like Amazon, Walmart, Ikea, The New York Times, and the Mayo Clinic retained their high rankings while successful niche sites that had worked hard to optimize their search engine standings by churning out content saw their names all but drop out of sight.

Chaos + despair: Google algorithm update

Of course, rank drops can happen because of issues tied to company websites themselves. For example, if brands offer sites that nobody likes because they take too long to load and include low-quality content, search results will suffer.

Still, industry experts say Google’s latest HCU, meant to reward sites with helpful content written for humans, while penalizing those with inferior content, likely played some role in recent volatility. Other core updates may have contributed as well, they say.

“There is a trend toward established, authoritative sites having their home pages being given prominence over individual blogs with fewer trust indicators,” says Fernando Angulo, senior market research manager at Semrush.

Semrush recently noted at least five, “very high” volatility spikes in October that the SEO community theorizes may have been partly caused by Google algorithm updates.

How much pain and confusion could that have caused for brands that aren’t as big as an Amazon or Walmart? Well, consider these SEO complaints posted on the message boards of Black Hat World and Webmaster World (as reported by Search Engine Roundtable):

  1. Some of my pages are disappearing, I don’t know why. I think mostly the pages where I have embedded videos . . . are disappearing.
  2. I am seeing even more movements in the SERPs (search engine results pages) today. Of course, it is more downward for us because Amazon and a couple of others are moving up. I honestly don’t even know what the point of writing content is anymore since Amazon and big sites dominate the first page. And it’s not only our sites, none of our competitors are ranking either. How can they?
  3. I have accepted the fact that my intermittent content disappearance issue is likely a “quality” issue in the eyes of Google. I’m going through it and adding more details as much as possible in an attempt to create more value between these posts. There are positives and negatives to this. Technically it is unnecessary, and I’m only trying to satisfy the machines rather than improve my content. But at least my competitors won’t steal my ideas as easily. I have at least a month’s work to do, day and night, to rectify this issue.
  4. We are still down a lot. Traffic cut in half. This is the first time since panda we got hit this bad and it has been a roller coaster between updates ever since. Have no idea what we are doing wrong. All our content is moderated, and we have been removing a lot of junk over the years. Cleaning things up so to speak, as we have been a strong believer in good and helpful content. I guess we have been punished for that.

Aaron Orendorff, head of marketing for SMS app Recart, says such grumbles are normal given how much Google’s HCUs are changing the way search rankings occur.  But he also notes that these kind of updates emphasizing quality sites and postings are likely to occur. So, brands need to adapt.

“The fundamentals of SEO haven’t changed,” Orendorff said. “It’s still about the expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (EAT) of your website.”

Human-crafted content > AI-generated filler

To ride out update gyrations and protect high search positions, experts recommend brands try doubling down on good writing that humans will want to read and doing their utmost to rationalize online content.

Experienced marketers consider quality content writing to be a critical part of SEO. But between financial pressures to hire cheaper writing talent and the rise of generative AI tools like ChatGPT that create content for free, more organizations are settling for inferior prose.

Experts say that won’t do, especially with Google HCUs favoring quality content that people spend more time reading over the crush of boring, vanilla posts that some brands are spitting out to fill their digital pages.

“You need to write good stuff that reads like it came from a human being,” Orendorff says. “Brands that prioritize good writing see legitimate lifts in the amount of traffic coming to them through Google.”

Angulo agrees.

“Successful niche sites distinguish themselves by offering expert-written content, comprehensive insights, and relevant backlinks from credible sources,” he says. “Conversely, low-quality affiliate sites and blogs that churn out repetitive content will feel the brunt of the updates.”

Eliminating content bloat 

But good writing alone won’t do the trick of addressing Google’s algorithm update. Orendorff says it’s also important for brands to audit their web properties to see where they have redundant or outdated materials – and eliminate any content bloat.

“This is the No. 1 place where brands can get quick, early, and sustainable SEO wins,” he says.

Orendorff notes that many brands have keywords spread out and repeating themselves across multiple pages of their websites. When this happens, “Google doesn’t know what page on your site is actually important,” he says. “So, you are essentially cannibalizing your own results.”

Doing this won’t be as easy for a large company with hundreds or thousands of content bloat situations, he acknowledges. Indeed, it will be easier for small- to midsized firms. But Orendorff says he’s pulled it off and achieved positive results within larger companies by starting off small with one or two pages over a holiday break.

“It took about 24 to 72 hours for that first page to hit,” he says. “Google is fast. And often, if you’ve done everything right, your initial results convince everybody to go, ‘Oh snap. Whoa. We got back to position one or two. Let’s go forth with this.”

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